In Richter v. Oakland Board of Education (A-23-19/083273) (Decided June 8, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Facts of Richter v. Oakland Board of Education
Plaintiff Mary Richter, a longtime type 1 diabetic, was a science teacher employed by defendant Oakland Board of Education. At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Richter received her schedule for the first marking period and learned that her lunch was scheduled for 1:05 p.m. Believing that would negatively affect her blood sugar levels, Richter asked defendant Gregg Desiderio, the principal of the school where she taught, to adjust her schedule so she could eat lunch during the period beginning at 11:31 a.m. Desiderio told Richter he would “look into it.” Further communications were exchanged about the requested accommodation; in the end, no change was made, and Richter attended to her cafeteria duties and ingested glucose tablets to maintain her blood sugar levels. Adjustment was made during the second marking period; however, a similar scheduling issue arose during the third marking period.
On March 5, 2013, near the end the period before her lunch, Richter suffered a hypoglycemic event in front of her students. She had a seizure, lost consciousness, and struck her head on a lab table and the floor, causing extensive bleeding. Richter was transported to a hospital for treatment. Prior to that, she had never passed out at work.
Richter filed a workers’ compensation claim for the work-related injuries; she recovered for her medical bills and for disability benefits. In March 2015, Richter filed a lawsuit under the LAD for failure to accommodate her diabetic condition. Defendants moved for partial summary judgment on the basis that Richter’s bodily injury claim was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the WCA. The motion judge held that under the WCA’s intentional wrong exception, Richter’s bodily injury claim was not barred. Defendants moved for summary judgment again, alleging that Richter failed to establish a prima facie failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD because she suffered no adverse employment action. A different motion judge granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Division reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Richter v. Oakland Board of Education
The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. It held that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. The court further concluded that plaintiff’s LAD claim based on defendants’ alleged failure to accommodate her pre-existing diabetic condition is not barred by the WCA, rejecting the contention that
plaintiff must filter her claim through the required showings of the “intentional wrong exception.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court first addressed Defendants’ argument that an adverse employment action is a required element of a failure-to-accommodate claim and Richter’s pleading is fatally deficient for not including that element. “The court now formally holds that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote.
According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the wrongful act for purposes of a failure-to-accommodate claim is the employer’s failure to perform its duty and a further adverse employment action is unnecessary. “To best implement the Legislature’s stated intent to eradicate discrimination … the Court concludes that an employer’s inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request is an omission that can give rise to a cause of action.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court further clarified that an employer’s failure to accommodate is itself an actionable harm. “While a lack of demonstrable consequences—whether in the form of an adverse action, of injuries like those sustained by Richter, or of some other type—might affect the damages to which an affected employee might be entitled—an employer’s failure to accommodate is itself an actionable harm,” Justice LaVecchia wrote. “The Court declines to adopt the approach taken by some courts—that the employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate is ‘the’ adverse employment action for purposes of considering the rights of a person with disabilities in the workplace,” LaVecchia added.
Next, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed whether Richter’s failure-to-accommodate claim is barred by the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision. In concluding that the answer is “no,” the court emphasized that “an overriding principle of statutory construction compels that every effort be made to harmonize legislative schemes enacted by the Legislature.”
Justice LaVecchia further emphasized that that each statute operates to fulfill different purposes, both protective of workers in the workplace. “Each statute operates to fulfill different purposes, both protective of workers in the workplace,” she wrote. “The statutes can function cumulatively and complementarily; they are not in tension, much less in conflict.”
The Court also noted that the two statutory schemes, harmonized, operate to prevent double recovery. “With double recovery averted, there is no possible conflict,” Justice LaVecchia wrote. “Thus, the full-throated pursuit of remedies available under the LAD for actionable disability discrimination may proceed unencumbered by the WCA exclusivity bar.”